The protests in Ferguson, Missouri over the shooting death of Michael Brown exposed for all to see how local police have been militarized and deployed to suppress social unrest and dissent. As the super-rich increasingly accumulate all society’s wealth and refuse to pay more taxes, thus defunding social services and benefits, their solution for poverty is to herd the poor into ghettoes patrolled by armored vehicles.
Aggressive policing of minority communities to segregate them from comparatively affluent middle-class communities is the strategy that has long been adopted by the U.S. state to absorb social and economic tensions exacerbated by globalization. As an African American in Ferguson succinctly explained: “It’s not a racial thing. It’s a police thing. It’s America against the police.”
The protests drew national attention to the way exaggerated “threats” to public order have been used to justify the use of extreme force against citizens exercising their First Amendment rights. The war zone-like images from an American city forced federal and state authorities to step in to defuse the situation in Ferguson and prevent the clashes from escalating.
Although Michael Brown’s funeral last Monday marked a pause in the protests, as a judicial investigation got under way, African American youth have shown they refuse to internalize the white power structure’s evaluation of their lives as worthless. Their defiance of police in riot gear, backed by snipers and armored trucks, brought Michael Brown’s death into the political spotlight.
Parallels with TV news portrayals of the Middle East became another subtext of the confrontations: the head of the St. Louis NAACP, Adolphus Pruitt, compared the militarized police response to Israeli treatment of Palestinians, for example, and a young girl held a sign at the protests that read “Negro Spring.” She told reporters: “The same as the Arabs fought for their rights, for their civil rights, to oust their corrupt government, we’re fighting for our civil rights, our human rights.”
The Guardian’s Gary Younge recounts an incident that shows how the aftermath of the clashes subverted fear of the police. “Just outside a mall in Ferguson, Missouri, shortly after 10 o’clock on Wednesday, a black man in his 30s was stopped and frisked by around eight white policemen. As he gingerly emptied his pockets, careful not to move too quickly, he yelled at them. … ‘Yes I’m angry,’ he shouted. ‘Four hundred years we been here. We built this place for free and y’all still hate us.’ A man filming the incident was told to move on but did not budge. When the police let the pedestrian go (whatever they were looking for he didn’t have), the man recording went too. ‘I’ve done my job,’ he said.”
This is a remarkable change, given the history and extent of police intimidation of the Ferguson community. The culture of militarism in the local police force is combined with a vicious racism encouraged by the town’s political structure, which finances itself by the extraction of fees and fines from the mostly African-American population.
The overwhelmingly white Ferguson police department attracts individuals seeking to perpetuate the inferior status of African Americans. Their supporters (including Fox News) channel a revival of segregationist fervor as some in the white communities fear the influence of a multi-racial majority on the political power structure. St. Louis Republicans were outraged when activists set up a voter-registration booth near Michael Brown’s memorial: the executive director of the state Republican Party was quoted as saying “I think it’s not only disgusting but completely inappropriate.” He described it as “injecting race” into the tragedy of Brown’s death.
As well as the shooter of Michael Brown, at least five other officers in the town’s 53-member department have been named in civil rights lawsuits alleging the use of excessive force. A 5-year veteran of the force, Dan Page, was suspended after video surfaced of him saying “I’m into diversity. I kill everybody, I don’t care” and describing Obama as “that illegal alien who claims to be our president.” Another officer posted on social media that he thought the Ferguson protesters should be “put down like rabid dogs.”
St. Louis itself is probably the most segregated city in the U.S. today. The Washington Post comments: “the break between races — and privilege — is particularly drastic, so defined that those on both sides speak often about a precise boundary. … St. Louis’s geographic divide stems from a legacy of segregation — legal and illegal — and more recent economic stratification that has had the effect of reinforcing racial separation. … Look at a map of St. Louis, color-coded by race, and majority-African American communities sit almost exclusively to the north — that is, above Delmar [Boulevard].”
Ferguson lies just outside the city’s boundary, in St. Louis county. When deindustrialization impoverished communities in the region, they lost their revenue base. The county’s infrastructure and police are now financed by court fines and fees imposed on the mainly African-American population for minor nonviolent offenses like traffic violations; if they can’t pay, they are arrested.
Despite having a population of just over 21,000, Ferguson issued 32,975 warrants for non-violent offenses – most of them driving violations – in 2013. African-Americans make up 67 percent of the town’s population, but 86 percent of drivers stopped by police are black. Jeff Smith, an assistant professor at the New School and a former Missouri state senator from St. Louis, says Ferguson “facilitates a debtors prison” because of the high number of arrest warrants that get issued when people don’t pay.
Bradley Rayford, an executive of student government at a local community college, told the Washington Post that youth feel “they are caught in a vise, with police harassment on one side and little economic opportunity on the other. ‘It’s a socioeconomic thing,’ he said. ‘It begins with getting a traffic ticket. You get pulled over and get this huge ticket. In some parts of the city, tickets actually double.’ Get a couple of those and soon ‘most people can’t afford their bills.’ … ‘If you don’t pay the ticket,’ Rayford said, ‘you get a court date. But you can’t go to court because you’re working two jobs. Now, warrants are out for your arrest. You can get arrested, then you can’t get a job. So many people are made criminals from traffic tickets’.”
While the Ferguson protests are not the revolution, the recognition of a common political enemy in the one percent has the potential to unite diverse communities in the fight against globalization. Bradley Harmon, local head of the Communication Workers of America, told The Nation labor is “probably the most racially integrated social force in St Louis. … I think if we’re going to reverse the decline of organized labor, we’re going to [have to] take on the systemic poverty and exclusion and withdrawal of public services that made Ferguson happen.” Lara Granich, director of the Missouri branch of Jobs with Justice, points out that “Getting rid of the idea that there has to be poverty jobs is a very important step. Economic inequality and racism are mutually reinforcing forces.”
The confluence of struggles against police intimidation and corporate exploitation is evidenced by the fact that members of the fast food workers group “Show Me $15” participated in the Ferguson demonstrations from the beginning. According to Labor Notes, “Shermale Humphrey used to work at the McDonald’s in Ferguson that sits right across from the scene of Brown’s shooting. ‘This [protesting] is something I had to do,’ she said. ‘I’m African American, and this could be anyone I know. I just can’t let it go on any longer.’ … Humphrey and her fellow Show Me $15 member Jeanina Jenkins were both arrested for trespassing when they protested at McDonald’s shareholders meeting in Oak Brook, Illinois, this May. Jenkins works at that same Ferguson McDonald’s but hasn’t been to work since the August 9 shooting, spending her days and nights at rallies instead.”
More and more Americans of every ethnicity will be drawn into political struggles against poverty wages and the apartheid-like policies that aim and often succeed in separating Americans. As Michael Brown’s tragic death shows, Americans of color in the United States continue to pay their most lethal costs. Yet these policies also blind those who benefit from white privilege to the costs they themselves will have to bear should they seriously try to assert their rights against the plutocratic order that now controls the state through laws like the Patriot Act, which has given us a militarized police, and decisions like Citizens United, which allows plutocrats and corporations to essentially buy Democratic and Republican candidates and unlimited legislative and political power.
The Ferguson protests and inclusive movements like the campaign for a $15 minimum wage, OUR Walmart, and activist groups fighting evictions to protect communities, fighting for We the People, herald the challenge that’s coming to plutocratic supremacy.